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Victories, Large and Small

I hope that Julia Turshen is the future of home cooking. There are a few voices in the crowd of people talking about food that are worth listening to–Julia’s is one of those voices. I would describe her, in lazy shorthand—the kind used to pitch a new television series, as Ina Garten with a sense of humor (she is the queen of #dadjokes) and a political conscience. This basically describes my ideal food writer. Full-disclosure, I also consider Julia a friend, but I think that only influences my judgment in positive ways. I can testify that she is authentic. Additional evidence for her greatness is the mountain of praise she has received in the weeks leading up to the release of her new cookbook.

After collaborating on several successful cookbooks as a writer, Julia recently published her first solo effort, Small Victories [1]. I tested some recipes for the book last summer and have been cooking from the real thing for the past few weeks. Everything has been successful, from a boozy peach milkshake to her famous Caesar salad dressing (which is truly the only Caesar salad dressing we need). The book is full of recipes that you want to cook, for parties, for weeknight meals–for everything. But more than any other recipe I have fallen deeply in love with her lasagna. It is weird! As Julia said to me, it kinda feels like it won’t work. It works. You make the pasta yourself, but the recipe is so simple that it feels easier than boiling noodles. (Also, SMALL VICTORY: You get to use that pasta maker you bought on a whim or received as a wedding present (thanks, Emily and Aaron!).) You make a simple tomato sauce, using canned tomatoes, and then stir a cup of creme fraiche in at the end which turns the sauce into one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Like, spoonfuls are missing before the lasagna is assembled. (SMALL VICTORY: I haven’t tested this but the sauce could definitely be pureed into a soup. (Right, Julia?)). The only other ingredients are mozzarella, Parmesan, and basil. There isn’t any ricotta or vegetables or anything else.  It works so well that it is kind of the only thing I want to cook anymore. I recently made it for friends (SMALL VICTORY: It can be made in advance, making it the perfect dinner party recipe) and we all silently (in reverence!) devoured the entire lasagna in like 10 minutes. My friend Tini, who is a connoisseur of carbohydrates and cheese said: It is like some fancy restaurant shit. And it is. It will make you proud and then make you take a nap. I got permission to share the recipe (exclusive!) below, so get into your kitchen and make this now.

Julia is going on a book tour [2]! You should all go meet her. She is coming to Chicago and I get to host an event at Local Foods [3]. My friend Abra [4] is cooking some recipes from the book. Julia and I will discuss food and dad jokes, and books will be available for purchase and signing. Best of all, it is FREE. But you have to RSVP [5]. I hope we see you there. [It is worth noting that at Julia’s book party in Manhattan, Sofia Coppola was the host. Which leads to one very obvious conclusion: I am the Sofia Coppola of Chicago. FACT.]

Also, years ago Julia was featured [6] on these very pages, check it out!

And order your copy of Small Victories here [1].

A Nice Lasagna (even the title of the recipe is rad), in Julia’s words:

SERVES 6 TO 8

The definition of a make-ahead dish, this lasagna is my absolute favorite thing to serve to a big group of friends. It is also one of my best friend Ivan’s favorite foods, and I like to gift it to him on his birthday (I assemble it in a disposable aluminum pan, wrap it up, and include instructions for baking it on the card). There are three small victories here. The first is using a food processor to make the pasta dough, which takes a lot of the fear out of homemade pasta (there’s no precarious mound of flour to navigate or work surface to scrub). The second victory is skipping both the American tradition of using ricotta (which can get watery and even tough when baked) and the Italian tradition of adding béchamel (who wants to dirty another pot and worry about lumps?) and go straight for crème fraîche. It gives you the requisite creaminess that all great lasagnas need to have, but without any effort. I mix it right into the tomato sauce rather than layering it on separately, because the whole point is for them to combine anyway. The third small victory is a high sauce-to-pasta ratio, the ticket to baking lasagna without boiling the noodles first. This way, the pasta absorbs the sauce and gets full of flavor and you get to skip a whole lot of labor. You can skip making homemade pasta (but try it sometime—it’s fun!) and use store-bought pasta sheets or a box of no-cook lasagna noodles.

SAUCE

PASTA DOUGH

 

TO MAKE THE SAUCE:

In a large bowl, crush the tomatoes with your hands (this is a messy but fun job—it’s a very good one for children) until they are in bite-size pieces.

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil, add the garlic, and cook, stirring, until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer, stirring every so often, until it is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.

Whisk the crème fraîche into the sauce and season to taste with salt. Set the sauce aside to cool to room temperature while you conquer the pasta.

TO MAKE THE PASTA DOUGH:

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, eggs and salt and run the machine until a firm ball of dough forms around the blade, cleans the side of the processor bowl, and doesn’t stick to your fingers when you touch it. If the dough is too dry, add a little water, 1 tsp at a time, until the dough comes together. If, on the other hand, it’s sticky when you touch it, add a little flour, 1 tsp at a time, until the dough comes together. (The exact amount of moisture in the dough depends on how you measured your flour, how large your eggs are, even the humidity in the air.) Once your dough is good to go, dust it lightly with flour and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Let it rest at room temperature for 1 hour.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and have more parchment paper at hand.

Cut the rested dough into six pieces. Working with one piece at a time (keep the rest covered with plastic), lightly dust the dough with flour and press it down with the heel of your hand. Run the dough through your pasta machine, starting on the widest setting and working your way through the narrower settings, rolling it through each setting twice, until it is very thin but not too thin. I usually stop at 6, but your machine might be different from mine, so I’ll just say that the final pasta should be the thickness of an envelope—which is to say thin, but not at all transparent. You don’t want it to disappear into the finished lasagna. If the dough sticks during the rolling, simply dust it with a little flour. Lay the rolled-out pasta on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough, keeping the rolled pieces separated with parchment paper.

Preheat your oven to 400°F [200°C].

Ladle a thin layer of room-temperature sauce onto the bottom of a 9-by-13-in [23-by-33-cm] baking dish. Spread the sauce with a spoon to cover the surface of the dish. Add a layer of pasta (brush off any excess flour), cutting the pasta and arranging it as needed to form an even single layer. Spoon over just enough tomato sauce to cover the pasta and then scatter over some of the Parmesan, mozzarella, and basil. Repeat the layering process until you’ve used up all of your components, ending with sauce and cheese (not naked pasta or basil, both of which would burn if exposed).

Bake the lasagna, uncovered, until it’s gorgeously browned and the edges are bubbling, 35 to 40 minutes. Let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes, just like you would a steak, before slicing and serving. This lets the pasta fully absorb all of the bubbling sauce, so you don’t end up with soupy slices.

Reprinted with permission from Small Victories by Julia Turshen, photographs by Gentl + Hyers, Chronicle Books (2016)